St. Louis and Phila. battle for pro soccer

The money is here; they have the real estate.

StadiumOverhead
An artist's conception of the soccer stadium, located next to the Commodore Barry Bridge on the Chester waterfront.

St. Louis has a stadium deal, but not enough wealthy investors.

Philadelphia has rich investors, but no commitment for a stadium.

That's how the competition stands as the bidding for a pro soccer expansion team enters its final weeks, with league officials expected to announce the winner in January.

How proponents in each city can enhance their plans will help determine if their city is picked to host Major League Soccer's 16th team.

"We're working hard and trying to show MLS what St. Louis can do," said Jeff Cooper, the millionaire lawyer who leads St. Louis Soccer United.

At the moment, the bids of the two cities are inverse mirror images, each one lacking what the other already has.

"If I were a betting a person, I'd put the money on Philadelphia," said Victor Matheson, an assistant professor at Holy Cross College who studies the economics of sports. "I'd guess the size of the market and the deep pockets [of the ownership group] would trump the soccer tradition of St. Louis."

But don't send money for season tickets just yet.

People familiar with MLS can envision alternate scenarios, including the possibility that both cities could be awarded teams, or that a less-known contender could emerge at the last minute.

In MLS, San Diego sportswriter Mark Zeigler noted, "if you show up at the league offices with a wad of cash and blueprints for a 20,000-seat stadium, you immediately jump to the head of the class." And on Dec. 18 Florida officials got in line, when the Miami-Dade County Commission approved a giant public works project that includes $50 million for a new soccer stadium.

Last month, MLS commissioner Don Garber named St. Louis the front-runner, with Philadelphia's chances contingent on acquiring $45 million in state funding to help build a stadium. But league executives also have been complimentary about Miami and other cities.

MLS officials say expansion clubs must have a soccer stadium or a commitment to build one, well-financed local ownership, and a market that's supportive of the game and attractive to sponsors.

Even against that less-than-explicit criteria, it's difficult to evaluate the merits of the two bids. Neither group has released detailed financial information. But some things are known, and it's plain that each city has certain distinct advantages over the other.

For instance, comparing the markets of both towns shows there is, well, no comparison.

In metro area population, Philadelphia ranks fourth in the nation, St. Louis 18th. In households with televisions, Philadelphia is fourth, St. Louis 21st.

"If it's a jump ball, we're the fourth-largest market and they're not," said former TV sports anchor Carl Cherkin, in the 1970s the public-relations officer for the Philadelphia Atoms of the old North American Soccer League and now helping to lure an MLS team here.

But St. Louis has a big asset: a stadium agreement in hand. In September the city council of nearby Collinsville, Ill., approved a $400 million plan to build a 18,500-seat stadium surrounded by sports fields, stores, offices, 1,600 housing units and two 120-room hotels.

"We are a turnkey deal for MLS," Cooper said. He means the only thing St. Louis needs is league approval - with that, it's turn the key and start the games.

Collinsville, 10 miles east of downtown St. Louis, is a community of 25,250 people that's home to a thoroughbred racetrack, the archeological remains of a Native American city, and the world's largest ketchup bottle, actually a 170-foot water tower. The ketchup bottle has its own Web site, fan club and souvenir T-shirt, and serves as something of a tourist draw.

But Cooper acknowledged the St. Louis bid suffers from a key deficiency: shallow pockets.

The league wants him to add investors who can demonstrate substantial personal net worth. For instance, the ownership of the new Seattle expansion franchise includes the Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen.

"We are moving toward strengthening the ownership group and making sure it's up to MLS standards," Cooper said.

Cooper is the managing partner of SimmonsCooper L.L.C., a law firm that specializes in asbestos cases. The firm has recovered more than $1 billion in verdicts and settlements for 10,000 clients during the last decade.

The other known investor in St. Louis Soccer United is Michael Huyghue, the new commissioner of the fledgling United Football League, which intends to start play in August as an eight-team pro league. Huyghue held senior management positions with the Detroit Lions and Jacksonville Jaguars before launching Axcess Sports & Entertainment in Jacksonville, Fla., which represents NFL and NBA players.

Efforts to reach Huyghue were unsuccessful.

"Clearly, the league has a long-term vision for strong local ownership," said Derek Aframe, former vice president of the New England Revolution and now an executive at Octagon, a sports-and-entertainment consultant. "They're looking for owners who are going to be there 10 years down the road."

That's a strength of the Philadelphia group, which wants to build a $115 million riverside stadium in the impoverished city of Chester.

Investors include iStar Financial chief executive officer Jay Sugarman, whose total compensation has been estimated by Forbes magazine at as much as $32.9 million a year. Others are James Nevels, founder and chairman of the Swarthmore Group, an investment firm that manages $1.7 billion in assets, and Wilmington developers Robert and Christopher Buccini, brothers who with David Pollin own the Buccini/Pollin Group Inc., which builds and runs hotel, office and retail properties across the Northeast.

The group sees the stadium as the centerpiece of a $500 million complex featuring stores, restaurants and offices. But it needs $45 million from the state to get started, and it's unclear if the legislature will approve the money.

State Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi says he's optimistic, and the governor supports the project, but others are opposed.

Last week, State Rep. RoseMarie Swanger (R., Lebanon) pledged to introduce legislation to limit stadium spending. With bridges and roads in bad shape, she said, the state should not spend millions on a sport that has failed twice in Philadelphia.

Another factor will influence MLS officials: tradition. Experts say that even in bottom-line 2007, when dollars seem to count for everything, tradition still counts for something because, in a city where soccer is ingrained, a pro team can be hugely successful even if it's not broadly popular.

Today, the American fan base is sufficiently sizable that soccer doesn't have to be the most popular sport in a given market. It only has to be the most popular among soccer fans, because there are enough of them to fill an 18,000-seat stadium 15 or 20 times a year.

St. Louis proponents tout their soccer legacy as unmatched. City native Robert Hermann was instrumental in creating the North American Soccer League. St. Louis University is a soccer power whose men's teams have won a record 10 NCAA championships. And the city played a crucial role in one of the greatest victories in American soccer history.

In 1950, a national team recruited largely from St. Louis defeated heavily favored England during the World Cup playoffs in Brazil, the 1-0 win celebrated in the 2005 film The Game of Their Lives.

Backers here insist Philadelphia's soccer lore is second to none.

"All due respect to St. Louis," said Cherkin, the former sportscaster, "we'd match them leg for leg. . . . The two Walters, Walter Bahr and Walter Chyzowych, have had more impact on soccer than anybody who has passed through the arch."

Chyzowych was a legendary striker at Temple University, coach at what was then Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science, and also coached the U.S. national and Olympic teams. Bahr ranks among the best American players of all time. It was Bahr who assisted on the goal that beat England.

MLS plans to announce a decision by the end of January.

"We're not going away," Cooper said. "If the 16th team is Philadelphia, the St. Louis group is sticking around and trying to be No. 17."


Contact staff writer Jeff Gammage at 610-313-8110 or jgammage@phillynews.com.